Wednesday, June 25, 2014

House of Secrets

Pride Playbill
Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina, in its last days at the Manhattan Theatre Club is a wonderful piece of theater. At turns touching, exiting, and funny it was a crowd pleaser. The play received four Tony award nominations, winning none. The competition must have been fierce.

A digression about the audience though. In settling into their seats, they were much noisier than they are at my local theater, more people seemed to be filtering in or out after curtain, and so forth. They did quiet right down once the lights dimmed.

Our local theater doesn’t use a curtain, so it was truly amazing when, after the lights dimmed, the stage was lit with some spots, showing four of the characters getting ready. Then the action. The play is set in a failing Catskills resort in 1962, the Chevalier D’Eon. I was prepared to tell James about the Chevalier during intermission, but Valentina (George when he’s in pants, and played by Patrick Page) has a speech explaining who the Chevalier was. I had read [Monsieur D’Éon is a Woman](Monsieur D’Eon Is a Woman: A Tale of Political Intrigue and Sexual Masquerade ) some years ago, so I was already aware of the history of French aristocrat who spent various years in either a male or female identity.

The group is joined by two newcomers, each of whom cause problems in their own way, and Fierstein has put these at opposite ends. First to arrive is Jonathan (Gabriel Ebert), who has never cross-dressed in front of other people before. Valentina is anticipating the arrival of Charlotte (Reed Birney), an activist for transvestite rights. Charlotte scares the piss out of some of the other guests with her strident insistence that the group must totally ban any homosexuals. The audience gave a knowing laugh at Charlotte’s speech that in fifty years homosexuals would still be reviled, while cross-dressers would be as common on the streets as cigarette smokers.

This is the issue for the play, and Fierstein uses it to not only look at the gender issues but also how views on gay people have changed since 1962. Although some of the men are terrified about being thought of as “queers,” Bessie (Tom McGowan) seems to have the best sense of humor about it, as a fat man in a dress. Gloria (Nick Westrate) isn’t so quick to identify as wholly straight, and Terry, the oldest of the bunch (John Cullum) remembers when gay people were the only ones to show her any sympathy. While some of the men want to disclaim anything sexual about it, Bessie does admit to getting "hard as a rock" over the thought of putting on women's clothing.

Acting as mother hen to all this is George’s wife, Rita (Mare Winningham). Winningham was fantastic in this role as a divorced woman who has fallen in love with a cross-dresser, but isn’t sure just what her husband wants. She tells George, late in the play, that if the resort does continue they should rename it “Casa Valentina.”

Secrets are revealed and characters find that their lives must change. This is not a play with some triumphant happy ending. It’s clear at the end that for all the heartache the characters have gone through, they’re due for even more soon. And you can put on a wig, dress, and makeup, but you can’t hide who you really are.
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